WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler danced around questions about whether President Donald Trump lost the Nov. 3 election in a debate with her Democratic challenger on Sunday before two Georgia runoffs that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Facing off with the Rev. Raphael Warnock on a debate stage in Atlanta, Loeffler repeatedly called the political newcomer a “radical liberal,” while Warnock criticized Loeffler’s stock trades after the wealthy businesswoman was appointed senator a year ago. Each criticized the other’s interpretation of the Christian faith.
As the debate began, Loeffler sidestepped a question about whether she agreed with Trump’s baseless claims that last month’s election was “rigged.” Trump has not conceded to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, instead insisting without evidence that the result was due to widespread fraud, claims that state and federal officials have repeatedly rejected.
“It’s vitally important that Georgians trust our election process and the president has every right to every legal recourse,” Loeffler said.
Warnock countered by asking why Loeffler “continues to cast doubt on an American democratic election. It’s time to put this behind us.”
Georgia has not elected a Democratic U.S. senator in 20 years, but Biden’s narrow victory there over Trump has given Democrats hope. They face an uphill battle, however, and need to win both races to deny Republicans a Senate majority that could be used to block much of Biden’s legislative agenda.
Republicans are training much of their fire on Warnock, the Black senior pastor of the Atlanta church where civil rights champion the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
“My opponent, radical liberal Raphael Warnock, is a socialist,” Loeffler said, an attack she voiced repeatedly through the debate. She went through a litany of attacks she has made in her campaign ads, which seek to portray Warnock as anti-police, anti-Israel, “Marxist” and tied to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a sermon in which the Black Chicago pastor declared: “God damn America!”
Warnock said Loeffler was trying to misrepresent him.
“I believe in the free enterprise system,” he said.
He accused Loeffler of improperly profiting by “dumping millions of dollars of stock” just after becoming senator and early in the coronavirus outbreak, before the stock market turned down.
“I’m OK with the fact that she wants to make money, I just think you shouldn’t use the people’s seat to enrich yourself. You ought to use the people’s seat to represent the people,” Warnock said.
The Justice Department closed a probe into stock trades made by Loeffler, along with Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jim Inhofe, earlier this year, shortly before market turmoil tied to the coronavirus, media have reported. All three have denied wrongdoing.
Loeffler was appointed to her seat a year ago after its former occupant retired. She trailed Warnock in her complicated 20-candidate Nov. 3 contest, when Warnock got 32.9% and Loeffler took 25.9%.
Senator David Perdue, the other Georgia Republican fighting to hold his seat on Jan. 5, opted out of debating Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff again, leaving his rival alone on stage on Sunday.
Ossoff said Perdue may not want to talk about his frequent stock trades while a senator. Last summer, the Justice Department shut an inquiry into Perdue’s trades in shares of a financial firm without charges, the New York Times reported last month.
“Senator Perdue, I suppose, doesn’t feel that he can handle himself in a debate, or perhaps is concerned that he may incriminate himself in a debate, both of which in my opinion are disqualifying for a U.S. senator seeking re-election,” Ossoff said.
Perdue’s campaign has said he does not manage his stock portfolio day to day.
The road to the runoffs poses challenges for both parties. Biden demonstrated that a Democrat could win in the historically conservative state by defeating Trump there by 49.5%-49.3% in last month’s election.
That outcome has sparked recriminations among Republicans, with Trump blasting Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and Loeffler and Perdue calling for the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
In a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, on Saturday night, Trump urged the crowd to vote Republican in the Senate runoffs despite his unsubstantiated claims of significant electoral fraud in the state. He also repeated his allegations of fraud in the national election that cost him the White House.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Brad Heath; Editing by Scott Malone, Paul Simao and Peter Cooney)